It’s hard to imagine a time when most Americans knew the name of the Surgeon General of the United States. But in the 1980s, I would bet that most of us knew that the person who held that position was Dr. C. Everett Koop. The man brought superstar face recognition to the job along with a turbocharged sense of duty to improve our health and educate us. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Dr. Koop equaled the Great Communicator at his own game: He used his position to speak to medical and lay audiences around the country on some of the key health issues of the day.
Dr. Koop was not the first Surgeon General to address the scourge of tobacco use in the country. But he vigorously kept up the pressure on Americans to quit smoking and on their physicians to do the same.
He was surgeon general at the start of the AIDS epidemic. He did not have the public backing of President Reagan when he first started his public education campaign about the merits of condom use and clean needle exchanges to stem the spread of the disease. It wasn’t until the death of actor Rock Hudson that the president embraced the need to acknowledge the epidemic and act to protect the public.
Dr. Koop got the word out about the benefits of these approaches and managed to keep his job. It is worth noting that his successor as Surgeon General under President Bill Clinton, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, lost her job when there was an outcry over her suggestion that teens use masturbation to quell the physical passions that might lead them down the path of AIDS and/or teen pregnancy. What bullet-proof authority did Dr. Koop have that Dr. Elders lacked?
And then, in 1988, President Reagan asked the Surgeon General to prove that abortion had dire health consequences. Ever dutiful, Dr. Koop assessed all the available data on the health consequences of pregnancy termination. The resulting draft report was leaked to the press, who reported that in it, Dr. Koop said that CDC data showed that women could have multiple abortions without any ill effect on their future fertility, ability to carry a pregnancy to term, their risk for any cancer, or to their mental health. Abortion may have been morally repugnant to Dr. Koop’s own evangelical Christianity, but the existing data did not prove physical or psychological harm were associated with the procedure. And Dr. Koop was first and foremost a scientist who followed the data.
And, lastly, let us address his long and beautifully shaped finger nails. Dr. Koop was not a guitar picker. The explanation was that, when he was a surgeon, he used his nails to retract the tiny organs of his small patients; his surgical specialty was separating conjoined twins. He said he found commercially available retractors to be too harsh for the delicate tissue of his fragile patients.
Whether grappling with the confluence of politics and health or finessing solutions to technical challenges in the operating room, Dr. Koop brought the right tools to the task.
- By Sally Koch Kubetin